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A Brief Appreciation of William Julius Wilson
Remarks given at the William Julius Wilson Retirement Symposium

Dean Douglas Elmendorf
September 13, 2019

Good morning. I am delighted to offer a warm welcome to all of you, on behalf of myself and everyone at Harvard Kennedy School. I am deeply honored to be able to play a small role in this appreciation of our extraordinary colleague and friend, William Julius Wilson. Indeed, I am honored to have been Bill’s colleague for the past few years, and I look forward to staying his colleague for many years to come. You can add the word “emeritus” to your title, Bill, but we will not let you get away from us easily.

The Kennedy School has been so proud to claim Bill as one of our faculty members for the past 20-plus years. More importantly, the Kennedy School’s intellectual life and influence on social policy have been so greatly elevated by Bill’s presence. No roll call of the greatest members of the Kennedy School faculty—which is an impressive roll call—would be complete without Bill. He has mattered so much—to our school, to all of Harvard, and to the country.

Over the past few days, we have heard so many people tell stories of how Bill’s scholarship and mentoring changed their careers and their lives. I have loved hearing these moving stories. Many of you have had the wonderful good fortune to know Bill for much longer than I have, and in many cases to work more closely with him. So, I will speak only briefly this morning before yielding to the first panel.

The main point I want to make is simply that Bill Wilson reflects the highest ideals of the Kennedy School. He is both a profoundly deep and innovative scholar and an intensely committed and important contributor to policy debates. Few people have excelled as much as Bill at either of those roles, much less at both.

Let me describe just one example of this combination. I recently read a lecture that Bill gave at the Kennedy School more than 30 years ago. The Edwin L. Godkin Lecture was established at Harvard in 1903. The lecture is intended to address “the essentials of free government and the duties of the citizen,” so over time the Kennedy School became the lecture’s home. In 1988, Bill was a professor at the University of Chicago, as you know, and was invited to give the lecture shortly after the publication of his acclaimed book The Truly Disadvantaged. Bill titled his lecture “The American Underclass: Inner-City Ghettos and the Norms of Citizenship.” I think a number of you were present for that lecture, and I regret that I was not.

As I read Bill’s words a few weeks ago, I was struck by his incisive review of scholarly research on race and class and poverty at that time. He assembled a puzzle out of many disparate pieces of evidence. He placed each piece with great care and precision, so that the listeners would understand the sometimes subtle but very consequential differences between the pieces. By the end, the audience had an accurate and holistic sense of the issues at hand. One could see clearly in these parts of Bill’s lecture the mind of a truly great scholar at work.

However, I was equally struck in my reading by Bill’s focus on how people outside the world of academic scholarship were interpreting or mis-interpreting or ignoring the research. He spoke repeatedly about “popular” views—the views of journalists, book writers, policymakers, and the general public. Sometimes he spoke in frustration, noting at one point that “apparently, rigorous scientific argument is no match for the dominant belief system.” But mostly, he spoke with hope, that his research and others’ research, explained clearly, could improve popular understanding and generate more effective policymaking. One could see in these parts of Bill’s lecture a commitment to serve the broader public.

It is this combination of scholarship and service—this tackling of vital problems with rigor and then engaging fully in policymaking and the public discourse—that the Kennedy School stands for. One can see in the Godkin Lecture, and of course in so much of Bill’s work over the years, why he reflects the highest ideals of the Kennedy School.

Indeed, when John Kennedy spoke at Harvard’s Commencement in 1956, Kennedy said: “The intellectuals who can draw upon their rational disinterested approach and their fund of learning to help reshape our political life can make a tremendous contribution to their society while gaining new respect for their own group.” Bill is exactly the sort of intellectual whom John Kennedy appears to have been seeking.

At the time of the Godkin Lecture, as I noted, Bill was a professor at the University of Chicago. Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, introduced Bill somewhat presciently. Derek said: “Dr. Wilson is probably on closer personal terms with more major university presidents than almost any other professor in the United States. For all of them at one time or another, and frequently more than once, have engaged in an unsuccessful effort to woo him away from [Chicago].” Very fortunately for all of us here in Cambridge, Harvard ultimately was successful in wooing Bill away from Chicago, and he has been our colleague here for many years now.

One might also observe that Bill is probably on closer personal terms with more U.S. presidents and policymakers than almost any other professor. That is a mark of his influence and importance, as confirmed by the appreciative video from Bill Clinton that we saw on Wednesday.

Derek also credited Bill in another way in his introduction to the Godkin Lecture. Derek said: “I don’t know how many people in the audience stopped to think how difficult [the issue on which Bill works] really is for a scholar. It’s not only very hard intellectually, it is also a field filled with the most intense political and emotional pressures. … It is [Bill’s] great achievement, among others, that he has always kept his own counsel, spoken his own mind, maintained his scholarly integrity … to this vitally important subject.”

Bill, we are so grateful for your incredible scholarly skill and integrity and for your commitment to the public interest. Harvard has been so much better and more interesting for the past quarter-century because you have been part of it. Thank you, Bill. And thanks to you all.